Samhain and other Ancient Festivals in Modern Society (Irish Mythology)

irish-mythology-samhain

Ah, yes! It’s almost the end of October, that time of the year when historians, Irish people with a genuine interest in their culture, “born again Celts”, revivalists and revisionists, recently returned German tourists and so on, clog the internet with articles on the famous pre-Christian festival.

There are plenty of excellent articles already out there on Samhain and there’s probably not much more I’d add with respect to Irish mythology. As a general rule of thumb however, I’ve always felt you shouldn’t write about Samhain unless you genuinely celebrate it, either through a party, a single shot of the hard stuff, or a simple acknowledgement of what it meant for our ancestors and consider what – in reality – it means for us today.

That’s one of the problems with ancient festivals, I suppose. To be meaningful or authentic, Samhain really has to be relevant, otherwise we end up going through the motions (like many Irish people attending mass in the past – not because they believed the particular doctrine but because that was what had always been done and everyone else did it).

Generally speaking, the point where a working ritual becomes a commemorative tradition is also the point where it starts to become meaningless. Here in New Zealand, for example, celebrating Samhain has always felt a bit weird. Samhain was a festival that marked the commencement of the winter. Its associated rituals therefore, were developed around the necessary preparations for that. The reality of my geographical location in Wellington conversely, means we’re actually heading into summer (and should probably – or more appropriately – be celebrating Bealtaine). In addition, because the ritualistic parts of the festival were very much based around agricultural practicalities (the crop season, the feeding of livestock etc.) the fact that I live in a modern city means those rituals are no longer particularly appropriate to the way I live.

In modern society, if we want to be honest and follow an authentic cultural process, we really need to find a more practical and more appropriate means of marking that celebration or, alternatively changing it entirely. That’s not the case with everyone of course. For anyone in the northern hemisphere associated with the agricultural sector, Samhain is still as relevant today as it ever was.

For those of use overseas, or living away from the land, we may have to rethink how we proceed in the future with such celebrations. If not, we’ll essentially be celebrating a festival day due to an incorrect identity alignment or for purely commercial reasons.

But, hey, that would never happen, would it?

Saint Patrick’s Day anyone?

 

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The Mystery of the ‘Top Toilet in Ireland’

Ireland HOliday 2012 094This is a true story that’s probably not a true story so, by definition, a perfect example of how folklore is created. I originally heard this tale from my aunt so if you know the truth behind it do please let me know. I’ve always wondered. Anyway, it goes as follows.

Back in the late 1990’s or early 2000’s (depends who’s telling the story), plans were drawn up for a public toilet at an isolated beauty spot in West Cork, the site of an ancient monastery set up by St Finbar. A large increase in traffic in recent times had meant a significant number of tourists were passing through (sometimes arriving in buses) and there’d been numerous complaints about the limited public facilities to cater for them.

In the version of the story I heard, a request for proposals for a new toilet block was sent out by Cork County Council. Several submissions were received, a decision was made and a contract finally drawn up and signed (or, possibly, not).  A year or so later, the Council received an invoice from the architect/builder/supplier for an absolutely extravagant amount of money.

Flabbergasted, they immediately sent a man out to Gougane Barra to find out what the hell was going on and when he saw the finished product – an artistic combination of ancient Iron Age style and modern interior design – his jaw hit the ground with a thump. Apparently he sent a note to his superior along the lines of ‘I thought we’d ordered a simple toilet block not a feckin space-age tribal hut!!’

According to my aunt, the Council would have taken action except for the fact that the toilet ended up wining an award for the ‘Top Toilet in Ireland’. Naturally, this being Cork, word spread almost immediately and for years afterwards, people were traveling all the way to Gougane Barra to see the new, extremely expensive, award-wining toilet rather than the ancient monastery.

Ireland HOliday 2012 095

As I said earlier, I have no idea if this story is true or not. I suspect not but out of curiosity I did do some research to see if there actually was a Top Toilet Award in Ireland. I did come a similar award for a toilet in Kerry for the same year but the absence of any other reference does make me wonder. Two top toilets in the same year?  The competition must have been fierce in 2002!

Funnily enough, I also came across the Toilets of Ireland Association website (Seriously! Who the hell knew!!) where a quote on the left hand side from the Chief Executive states:

“I’m going to make your toilet experience even more special!”

 Honestly, it’s enough to make you shiver!!